A History of Science Class about Favorite Things
by Greg Radick, Kat Rawling, Jamie Stark, and Adrian Wilson
Editor’s note: Speak of a gift that keeps on giving! The different iterations or avatars taken on by a history of science course built around objects at the University of Leeds is precisely such a gift. The Newsletter is delighted to hear from different members of the HPS faculty at Leeds about how this course was conceived and the different functions it has performed over the years.
When a group of staff and students founded the University of Leeds Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in 2007, we had three goals in mind, beyond simply conserving and showcasing the collections dotted around the University. One was to use the objects to improve our teaching. Another was to encourage research on and around the objects. And the third was to increase our ability to bring the insights and excitement of the history and philosophy of science to wider audiences.
In the early years our efforts on this last front mainly involved hosting visits from local schools. But as the Museum gained a more secure footing institutionally, our ambitions grew, and we began to consider something grander. The idea of a lecture series around the objects came, of course, from the landmark 2010 BBC radio series A History of the World in 100 Objects, by the then Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor. As we talked about what we might do, a plan gradually took shape: to offer a series of 20 public lectures, at roughly one a month during term time, focused on objects chosen either because they are important in their own right—e.g., the Astbury X-ray camera, used in taking the first X-ray photos of DNA; the prototype MONIAC, a pioneering computer which modelled national economies in water flowing through tubes—or because they can be used illustrate themes that we wanted to address: an air-pump, as emblem of the search for laws of nature; a two-headed fish, as an occasion for talking about monsters as a problem for pre- and post-Darwinian biology.
We launched the series in January 2016, with a lecture on a sixth-century BCE horse-and-rider figurine from ancient Cyprus. Throughout the two years the objects continually pushed us to think about the scientific past, and how to present it, in new ways. They also enchanted our audiences, who stayed around after each lecture to look more closely and ask further questions—which in turn suggested to us that perhaps here we had the beginnings of a new undergraduate module.
I first got the undergraduate course going (2017-18), but I claim no credit for the idea. That—including the master-stroke of making half the objects material, half textual—came from Jon Topham, himself inspired by the original lecture series. And I took advice from Leeds colleagues as to what to include—so thank you in particular Mike Finn for Aphra Behn’s translation of Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, which proved very popular with students.
Not all courses “fly” on their first outing, but this one did: student feedback was glowing. I think that was because the objects gave a sequence of foci—from Vesalius’ Fabrica (our wonderful library has a copy) to Dorothy Hodgkin’s model of the insulin molecule. Yet each of my lectures spent much more time on “before the object” and “after the object” than on the objects themselves. For instance, Lister’s microscope was bookended by eighteenth-century microscopy (before) and the cell theory (after). One of the great things about this format, then, is that it can be used in many different ways, according to the preferences of the teacher. But there was one aspect that didn’t go well at all: assessed student presentations in seminars. Non-presenting students simply didn’t prepare (so no discussion); presenting students were very nervous and gabbled their presentations; and the content of the presentations was, with one or two exceptions, rather weak. So Jamie Stark, who taught the module the following year, replaced that with a blog post.
A favorite object? Oddly, I’m picking Steven Hales’s pneumatic trough (to use its later name). Oddly, because that was the least popular text with students—it’s quite a challenge to make Hales intelligible and interesting, and it’s one in which I didn’t succeed. But that’s my choice, because teaching Hales in this framework led me to an epiphany that not only Hales, but all eighteenth-century investigators into natural phenomena, were doing something that differed radically both from the activities of their seventeenth-century predecessors and nineteenth-century successors. More than two years later, I’m still exploring the implications of this realization. History of Science in 10 Objects was an education for me, as well as for the students, and remained a living module as changes were implemented in subsequent years.
I taught the module for its second outing in 2018-19. The objects featured in the course were a mixture: some well-known, others obscure, and only a proportion readily available to consult in physical or digital form. Changing the form of assessment from presentations to three 500-word blogs posts, each on one of the objects, challenged students to make the objects and their significance hit home to a non-specialist audience. Many of these pieces of work were really excellent, and used the objects—such as the midwifery forceps or Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds—as starting points for much broader and creative discussions about themes including gender in medicine, science fiction, and the gendering of scientific narratives. I expanded the scope of the first session of the module, focused on the Vesalius Fabrica, by including other related medical texts, including Leonhart Fuch’s De humani corporis fabrica epitomes (1551) and Vesalius’ own Opera omnia anatomica et chirurgica (edited by Albinus and Boerhaave and published in 1725). We are truly blessed at Leeds to have copies of these incredible texts, and the experience of handling them all was clearly inspirational for the students in both this and other years.
My favorite object was undoubtedly the Voltaic pile, simply because it highlighted connections across what we would recognize as distinct scientific “disciplines,” and the significance of happenstance in scientific discovery. The simplicity of the object—“Is that really a battery?”— took the students by surprise, and they were equally amazed at its impact on chemical discovery at the Royal Institution in the hands of Humphry Davy.
In some ways it was disappointing not to be able to teach the module again, but I truly believe that in multiple sets of hands the course has become much more than it ever could if owned by just one person.
I first taught the module in 2019-20 and saw the potential in the approach and content immediately. I rely on photographic objects in my own research so this was a great opportunity to introduce students to the value of material approaches to historical sources. Even though half the objects were in fact texts, I encouraged students to think of those publications like the Fabrica or Darwin’s Origin as objects too, objects that were handled, annotated, and circulated, with physical features like size and weight that could all inform their meaning. Last year my favorite object was the first in the series. The Fabrica was a perfect place to start. Taking the students (some of whom hadn’t studied history since high school) to see and handle the actual object in the Special Collections of the Brotherton Library engaged them from the outset and foregrounded my emphasis on materiality—they could see the size and scale for themselves, the binding, marginalia, stamps of ownership—all of which prompted useful conversations about the status and dissemination of scientific knowledge. My favorite object in 2020 has been Bertha Röntgen’s hand viewed through X-ray, which prompted lively seminar discussions about death, visualization and the perils and promise of new technologies.
The first time around, I brought in examples of the objects for the students to handle at every opportunity. Teaching this module in 2020-21 under current pandemic restrictions, however, has meant a change to my teaching methods; lectures are delivered in three parts, resources need to be online and so on. I have relied on the excellent digital resources like high-quality photographs, 360˚ simulations, digitized copies, and videos available through many libraries, museums and collections. It is also more important than ever to supply the students with information like object dimensions and material composition to help convey a sense of the objects’ physical properties. I’ve used this as an opportunity to prompt further discussions about digitization, absence and presence, materiality and access.
I emphasize from the very first lecture and throughout that our 10 objects should not be regarded as the definitive list—I want students to be aware that the narrative changes according to the objects chosen, so there is not one list but many, each relating to different priorities or agendas. Changes this year include devoting the first session to material culture in historical practice, to provide students with a secure basis for studying the list of objects in the following weeks. It was essential to replace some objects with new ones to diversify the list, introduce more perspectives and viewpoints, and tackle subjects like gender, disability, colonialism, and power. New objects for 2020-21 include the Mercator projection, the Medresco hearing aid, Herschel’s telescope, the contraceptive pill, and the now familiar face mask.
I spend time focusing on the significance and relevance of the chosen objects to much broader issues—I encourage the students to think of each object as a window revealing a bigger picture, a model that proves useful for their blog post assignments and seminar discussions. In this way, the midwifery forceps become a way to think about women’s experiences as mothers and practitioners and the wider medicalization of childbirth; the first X-ray photograph prompts in-depth discussion of the complex relationship between technologies and bodies; the face mask requires students to consider risk, responsibility, and scientific authority; and the Mercator projection encourages them to reflect on how “objective” knowledge is produced and disseminated. Relating individual objects to wider themes allows us to make links and comparisons between seemingly disconnected objects and brings cohesion to a varied list of items ranging from the Fabrica to the Pill.
Alongside the module in 2020-21 the initial lecture series has gone on to have a second life, thanks to the video recordings from each of the original lectures. During the COVID-19 lockdown in spring 2020, when so many people were stuck at home, and so many teachers were eager for quality online content, it occurred to us that the videos—languishing quietly on YouTube—could, if suitably repackaged, form the basis of a lively and accessible self-guided introductory course in history and philosophy of science. With help from the University’s Digital Learning Team, and the support of the lecturing team (a mixture of staff, visiting fellows, postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students), we launched the series in this new format in May 2020, and were delighted by the international uptake. Anyone interested can still sign up here. More recently, we have released a streamlined, more student-friendly version, which can be accessed here. Surely a Netflix boxset can’t be too far off….
And a bonus item…
Editor’s Note: In November 2020 the Centre for the History and Philosophy of Science at Leeds launched a nationwide essay competition based on the online lectures about the objects, inviting high-school (year 12 and 13 A-Level) students to send in 800-word essays about which of the objects they considered to be the most important, and why. The winner of the prize was Aarushi Malik (King Edward VI Camp Hill School, Birmingham) for her essay on the stethoscope. The two runners-up in the competition were: Sara Hamdani, (Xaverian College, Manchester) whose essay was on the collections’ oldest object, a 7th century horse and rider figurine from the area around modern day Cyprus, and Ruby Kline (West London) on the Biblical herbarium. All essays may be read on the Centre’s blogsite. The prize-winning essay is reproduced here with permission from the Centre & author.
Medicine is constantly evolving: within the past 2 years there have been major advancements in the treatment of many conditions—such as individualized therapy for leukemia, therapeutic developments for Parkinson’s disease, and now, manufactured only in the past 10 months, a whole new vaccine for the infamous coronavirus. These developments have improved the health of many and given great new research prospects for scientists to expand on. This all depended on our ability to find anatomico-clinical correlations between the symptoms and causes of disease, therefore exemplifying the great significance of the stethoscope, and why I have chosen it to be the most important out of these 20 fascinating objects.
The creation of the stethoscope symbolizes the change in attitude to medicine in the 18th and 19th century—from one majorly patient-led and symptoms based to one doctor-led and anatomically based. Because of this, medicine was able to crack open its cocoon and treat the roots of diseases, instead of identifying the symptoms as the problem itself—resulting in enhanced treatment and care for those infirmed. The use of the stethoscope by Laennec from 1819 clearly shows a forward thinking approach, looking inside the body for an explanation of the symptoms: for example, when used to detect abnormalities in the heart’s rhythm, or something irregular with the lungs—something which had already started with uses of percussion after 1761. This was before the publication and approval of Germ Theory by Pasteur and Koch, and therefore there was much less empirical evidence for using anatomically based medicine. However, with Corvisart taking it up and teaching percussion and auscultation in a newly established medical school in Paris after the French revolution, it gained momentum and there was much reason to support the idea. However, the stethoscope being a tangible object gave this new way of practicing medicine—linking the possible post-mortem causes to the living patient—a clear symbol. This change revolutionized how we think of disease—instead of viewing someone’s loss of vision as a sudden blindness that the patient would just have to now deal with, we could see it as a disease of the optic nerve and provide some opportunity for fixing. This new information permitted us to find new and exciting ways of dealing with these problems, and improving the quality of life of many people to come. Without the stethoscope, it may have been a long time until doctors were able to ‘look’ inside the body and treat diseases with more success.
The stethoscope also shows us how far we’ve come in the way of technology, and the way we view improvements in science. The image of a stethoscope has changed so much since Laennec’s first wooden cylindrical prototype, into the snaked, comfortable and efficient tube of today. This can tell us so much about how we’ve progressed, and how something from 200 years ago can still play an important part in society today—and therefore the significance of every little discovery and stroke of genius. It can tell us so much about the importance of the way we view discoveries—not to be satisfied with the first solution we get, and to keep probing until we get a better response. People at the time had accepted that hospitals could rarely save someone’s life when infected with a disease—they had accepted that a short-lived remedy would be given and the disease would eventually take the person’s life. But with the use of the stethoscope and the simple theory behind its purpose, doctors could do so much more than provide palliative care, and could actually get to the root of the disease. They could find the source of the fever, or loss of vision, or swelling, give it a name and give it a remedy. And this can still be applied to today—people are still always trying to find a more efficient, a more productive method to improve quality of life in so many ways; we will never reach the limit of knowledge, and the stethoscope can exemplify this. It has also given way to many other medical instruments with similar purposes and to take a ‘peek’ inside the body—for example, an ultrasound or radiograph, which we all know the humbling services of.
Although the other objects are fascinating tokens of our past and can raise so many questions about the way we conduct scientific studies, there is nothing more important than our own health and the health of those around us. When it all comes down to it, life isn’t about whether science and art are distinct; it isn’t about whether a certain scientific model was accurate enough; it isn’t about whether coral can be seen as a colony. What matters is the way we spend our lives, and being able to spend that little bit longer with your loved ones. We may as well be able to enjoy that time, right?”